After I posted my reflections on the conversation between Gavin D’Costa and Daniel Strange, Dan kindly sent me a draft of some material he had written by way of response, for inclusion in the manuscript for a book on which he is currently working. I was grateful for this opportunity for further conversation, and I made a few additional comments on what Dan had sent me. I am not at liberty to pass on his work in progress, but I want to share more broadly some clarifications regarding my own position, which were elicited by Dan’s remarks.
In his most recent email message, Dan wrote:
“I think one of the key things we seem to differ on here is whether the ‘antithesis’ is as antithetical as I believe it is. I just don’t see biblically your description of ‘sinners who are both moving in the same direction, though at different places along that same path.’ However much common grace we can talk about, I think there is always a fundamental transition between dark and light, death and life etc. and that this difference is principial, the roots of the worldview if you will.”
I want to make sure my understanding of these things is clear to readers of this blog, and I’m hoping that these additional remarks I made to Dan today will be helpful. I wrote:
I totally agree with you that there is a sharp line between dark and light, death and life. But I want to make two corollary observations.
(1) We are not always able to discern accurately on which side of that line a person stands, in their relationship with God.
(2) Given the limits of our judgments in that regard, rather than jumping to such judgments, particularly through assessment of a person’s affiliation with a religious institution, we should seek to discern the direction of the person’s life at the moment of our meeting. We all live in constant relationship with God, either moving toward him or away from him. This is true on both sides of that sharp line which is clear only to God. People are continuously responding to divine revelation, either positively or negatively. Our goal, therefore, should be to listen and watch for indications of their situation in this regard. When people seem genuinely to be at peace with God, to have a clear conscience in regard to their behaviour relative to what they understand to be God’s demand upon them, and living out of a desire to please God, we should be thankful for this. It is not our responsibility to give people assurance of their salvation, on the ground of such discerned behaviour, but we should all be seeking to help others to live in constant faith and obedience to God. This orientation of our hearts is fundamental. Additionally, we must share/teach the truth of God to the best of our knowledge and ability, relying upon the Spirit of God to illumine people’s minds to God’s truth, of which we seek to be ambassadors.
I am reminded of a conversation I had once with a missionary in the Arab world. He spoke about the delight of meeting professing Muslims who had the heart of God-fearers. In our relationships with the adherents of other religions, I think it is appropriate for us to begin from a spirit of hopefulness concerning the work of God in these people’s lives. Even in the case of those who have not yet been transferred by God out of darkness into light, when people are being drawn by God to the light, we should rejoice and seek to be midwives in God’s service. This framework will make us less interested in whether or not this person is a Christian, and more interested in how they are relating to God at this point in their lives, in the orientation or trajectory of their heart response to God.
I hope that make sense, whether or not you agree.”
On rereading what I had said, I should stress that I am certainly not uninterested in whether or not people become Christians. I do want people to believe in Jesus, God’s Son and the world’s only saviour and to join a community of others with that commitment. But even when I am talking to fellow Christians, I want to have the same basic goal, namely, encouraging them to keep moving forward in response to God. I am happy when others have that same goal in their relationship toward me.
The issue here is priority. I think that my primary interest should be how people are responding to God in the ways that God is making himself known to them. It is in the case of people whom God is moving toward the light, that Christian gospel proclamation is most fruitful, and I do want them to become part of the church which Jesus is building.
John 3:20-21 is an important text for me here:
“All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
In the interest of mutual clarity, I now welcome any thoughts that are triggered in your minds by these observations.